Child Discipline

I have read and reviewed many books on parenting and discipline in my 30+ years as a Licensed Pediatric Psychologist. I have only recommended one or two to parents because the parenting suggestions made in most are ineffective; many are mean-spirited and potentially damaging.

Very little has changed since psychologists, social workers, educators, etc., began applying Behavior Modification principles developed by B. F. Skinner in the animal laboratory 50 years ago. Skinner found that following a behavior with a reward or something pleasant increased the likelihood of its future occurrence.  Following a behavior with something unpleasant decreased the likelihood that the behavior would be repeated. Skinner also found that taking something favored away would punish (decrease) behavior and that responses could be strengthened by taking away something unpleasant after they occur.

These practices work great when training rats, monkeys, and pigeons in the laboratory. Not so great when applied to parenting and discipline, but approaches to “disciplining” children based on Skinnerian Behavior Modification principles are deeply ingrained in our society and are recommended year after year by professionals who should know better (but apparently do not).

I do (know better) and I don’t think we should treat our children like rats, pigeons, or monkeys. Here are a few examples of very bad advice given to parents by professionals, based on the above. We all know Dr. Phil. He recommends finding out what kids really like and value. He calls these objects and activities a parent’s “currency”. They are to be presented when parents “catch their kids being good” and taken away when kids make mistakes or misbehave. He also recommends putting children in “Time Out” (TO) when they misbehave (presenting something unpleasant) and kids are to be let out of TO only after they are quiet. To make things really awful for kids, he recommends a room for TO with nothing in it…preferably without even a window.

Psychologist James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame puts a religious spin on things but his recommendations are still based or punishment. He advocates spanking/hitting kids when they misbehave. He conceives of children as essentially evil; locked in a battle of wills with parents that parents can’t afford to lose. Curiously, I guess he thinks willful children can be subdued and taught to submit to parents by the age of 10; after which they are no longer to be spanked. Even more curiously, Dobson recommends spanking children with objects (spoons, brushes, etc.) because the hand is for loving.

Super Nanny (and most pediatricians) tells parents to make a chart, grab a handful of stickers, and wait for something good to happen. Parents don’t even have to make their own charts and stickers…they can buy chart and sticker packages on the internet! How many stickers would have to be applied to your chart to make you better in math, more organized, more social, etc.?

Over the next few weeks, I am going to post a series of articles dealing with what I call “Myth-Information” and “Pseudo-Information”. Myth-info refers to bad advice…like that mentioned above…that is part of the parenting mythology in our society. The information is false, misleading, and probably damaging to children and parent/child relationships but has taken on a life of its own and lingers on.

Pseudo-information refers to advice that parents are given that sounds like parenting advice but is merely reassuring. Pediatricians dispense pseudo-info when they tell parents their children “will grow out of it”. Parents are given this “advice” when asking about bedwetting, thumb-sucking, school and behavior problems, etc. This is not advice and does not give parents any direction in helping their children. However, it is reassuring to parents to think that, someday, their children will “grow up” and abandon bad habits. Children reliably grow out of their clothes…everything else tends to get worse! Teachers also dispense pseudo-info by telling parents their children “aren’t ready” for school or to move on to the next grade. Once again, the promise/hope is that someday, the children will be ready…reassuring.